Lessons From History Series: The Good Friday Agreement: Twenty-Five Years Later
Former officials involved in the negotiations discuss the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement), lessons for the ongoing peace process, enduring sectarian tensions, and the future of Northern Ireland.
The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
HAASS: Well, good morning to those of you here in the United States. Good afternoon, if my math is right, to those of you in Europe. So often here at the Council on Foreign Relations we mark the anniversary of events that have an element of tragedy to them. What’s so good about this morning is not that it’s a beautiful spring morning here in New York, appropriately enough, but it’s also a chance to talk about something good, and important, and lasting, which is the Good Friday or, if you prefer, Belfast Agreement. And we’re doubly fortunate to be doing it with three of the central participants.
We have the former prime minister of Ireland, the taoiseach to one and all, Bertie Ahern. We have Jonathan Powell, who was the chief of staff for approximately a decade, if my memory serves me right, to Prime Minister Tony Blair, and now founded and leads an organization that does this sort of thing all over the world. And David Pozorski, who was the acting U.S. counsel general in Belfast, and worked hand-in-glove with George Mitchell, which played a large role in this. Again, I want to welcome all three of you.
And I want to do a special shoutout to the taoiseach, to Bertie Ahern. I’m sure he will remember, he will always have an important part in my life. When I was the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, which started a few years after this, 2001, it was in his office, on 9/11/2001, that we literally got word that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. We flipped on the television in his office or outer office, I forget, and we watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Suddenly, what we were talking about seemed far-removed, and we talked about it between ourselves, and we went out and did a press conference. And it was just one of those moment where it was good to be with such a good friend. And it’s just something that I will—I will never forget.
Jonathan, I’d like you, though, just to kick things off for a minute, which is let’s just talk about what the Good Friday Agreement is before we talk about how we got there, and how it’s worked, and what now. Just take a minute or two to summarize the dimensionality of the so-called three strands of the agreement, just to make sure that everybody is up to speed.
POWELL: Yes. Thank you, Richard.
Well, the Good Friday Agreement is made up of three strands. The negotiations were in three parts. The first part was inside Northern Ireland, between the parties in Northern Ireland and the British government. The second part was north-south, between the two parts of Ireland. The third part was east-west, the islands as a whole as their relationships. So there were different items under different bits. So for example, in the north-south we have these north-south bodies that we’ve created. In the first section we had power sharing between the different communities that hadn’t existed for so long. And we had a council of the isles in the east-west dimension, to give the unionists a feeling of anchoring in the United Kingdom as a whole. So those were the three elements.
But I think one important thing to remember about the Good Friday Agreement is it was an agreement to disagree. We couldn’t actually get people to agree whether they wanted to be in a united Ireland or United Kingdom. Those views stayed the same. What we did was we took the violence out of the equation. It was a peace agreement that stopped the fighting and allowed people to feel Irish, British, or both, living in Northern Ireland. And it’s been remarkably successful, despite the various hiccups we’ll no doubt talk about, in terms of ending that violence. We will never be going back, I believe, to the Troubles and that civil war for so long.
HAASS: As always, Jonathan, you’re several steps ahead of me. So I’m glad to see that today is no exception. Bertie, I have a question before—I don’t want to commit any faux pas diplomatically. Once when I was interviewing Tony Blair, he said in Britain is that after you’re prime minister you’re not called prime minister, unlike the United States where if you’re president you’re always president. I don’t know what it is in Ireland. So do I call you taoiseach, prime minister, Mr. Ahern, or you tell me? I apologize for not knowing.
AHERN: No, Bertie—I answered to Bertie all my life, Richard. And so I continue to do that. (Laughter.)
HAASS: OK. I don’t want anyone to think I’m not being properly respectful. What I’d love to get from all three of you, and I’ll start with you, sir, is why do you think the Good Friday Agreement happened when it happened? What do you think made it possible? Why then and not before? Why then at all? What do you think—how were the stars aligned to bring this about?
AHERN: Well, I suppose there were a number of facets to that. There were two major attempts. The Troubles started in the north. And not about the constitutional question of Irish or British, but around the civil rights movement, similar to what was happening at that time in the United States, what was happening in France. And it was very much John Hume and others around the equality agenda, around one man, one vote, one person, one vote. Around education, and housing, and those issues. And unfortunately, over a period of a few years, because of the reaction of the authorities in the north then—which in some ways had isolated themselves from the rest of the UK and UK were not really, in fairness to them, in the equation. They used physical force against the civil rights movement, and that kind of moved it on a few steps.
There were two attempts made to make progress, one in ’74, one in ’85. Both agreements, one was called Sunningdale the other Anglo-Irish Agreement. And, you know, I always say—give a lot of credit to everyone who was involved in trying to make those happen, but they didn’t happen. And then I think probably the next facet was when Tony Blair and the Labour majority come in, in ’97, in the UK. And he and I had already been working in opposition on what we were trying to do to make a decent attempt, and making progress if we got a chance. And I think the reason that that worked well, I think, one, we worked together. We worked as a team. You know, we did not get into adversarial politics. We tried to see if we could stop the violence which had been going on for twenty-five years, thousands of people killed and maimed.
And then, I think, we managed to pull everybody in. And the difference between 1998, Richard, and the other attempts was that the 1998 was inclusive. We brought in loyalists, unionists, republicans, nationalists. And that was risky because we had to try and get them all to sign up to the George Mitchell principles of nonviolence, which was a little bit of a gray area but, you know, sovereign governments have to be careful, as you know. But I think the difference was that it was an inclusive process. And that’s what, I think, made a big difference.
HAASS: Jonathan, a minute ago you said that you thought one of the reasons it succeeded was because it had limits built into it. It didn’t try to resolve, what you might call in the Middle East, final status. It left some of that open. When I talk about it, and tell me if you disagree, I thought the insight that your government had—the Blair government and the previous government—had were two things. One is that people were not going to be allowed to shoot their way to power. But, two, you were going to open up a political pathway that, while it would not give people everything they wanted, it would give them more than they would otherwise get. What is your take on that?
POWELL: Yeah, I think that’s right. It was around the concept of consent, on the one hand, which gave, in many ways, the unionist what they said they wanted, which was the right of Northern Ireland to determine its own future rather than it being determined for them by others. But at the same time, this ability for those who felt Irish, as the border melted away, as both members of the EU, to feel Irish and live in Northern Ireland. So I think that was a crucial aspect to the agreement.
But there were two other aspects, I think. And I totally agree with Bertie about inclusive. The trouble with Sunningdale was it was not inclusive. It excluded Sinn Féin and the loyalists from the negotiation. Same problem with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It was just the two governments. And even John Major’s Downing Street Declaration in ’93, and I think John Major does deserve a lot of credit for trying on Northern Ireland, the Downing Street Declaration too was the two governments, and was not inclusive. So ’98 was the first time we tried to do it inclusively with all of the parties—Sinn Féin, the loyalists, the whole lot of them.
And I think the two crucial factors were the existence of a mutually hurting stalemate, something academics talk about. Where you get into a situation where both sides realize they can’t win militarily, and they are actually hurting in those circumstances. I think British Army probably realized late 1970s early 1980s they could contain in the IRA forever, but they were not going to be able to defeat them militarily. I think Adams and McGuinness realized probably mid-1980s they were not going to win militarily, and they were hurting their people getting arrested, killed, et cetera. And they started reaching out first to John Hume, who deserves a huge amount of credit on this, then to the Irish government, and finally to the British government.
But the other factor, that Bertie touched on but was too modest to major on, which was leadership. You know, successful agreements happen, somewhere like South Africa, if you have really strong leaders like Mandela and F. W. De Klerk. In Northern Ireland, we were lucky with the leaders of the parties, in terms of Adams and McGuinness, who led Sinn Féin, crab-like, to an agreement, and to the unionist leaders, Trimble and Paisley who, in the end, risked a lot to get to peace.
But most of all, we were lucky to have Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern together in office for ten years. Remember, Adams and McGuinness had seen nine British prime ministers come and go. Here they had one team, the British prime minister and the taoiseach, working incredibly closely together. And leaders who had to take risks. Bertie took risks in moving on the Irish constitution, on moving, for example, on north-south bodies in that first day in the Good Friday negotiations. And that strong leadership and his experience as a negotiator, with trade unions and everything before that job, was crucial. So I think I’d put leadership and inclusivity as the two absolutely fundamental factors.
HAASS: David, I hope you’re with us there. Say something about George Mitchell’s role. How central you think it was? And I’d be—afterwards I’ll ask Bertie and Jonathan, would this have happened without American mediation in the person of George Mitchell? Was it 5 percent of what happened, 25 percent? Was it the 5 percent at the end that took people over the finish line? What is your sense of the—because often in disputes people focus—in my own view, as a former mediator, I should add unsuccessful multiple times—I think people exaggerate the role of a mediator. But I’m curious how it looked from where you sat in Belfast.
POZORSKI: Well, I think that Senator Mitchell’s role, with his fellow commissioners, was important. It wasn’t crucial. It wasn’t a game completer. But we together provided and international cover for the negotiations. Senator Mitchell, in his role, and in his infinite patience and his ability to listen seemingly forever, endured endless hours of rhetoric, et cetera. But he persevered, and he won over the—I think certainly the respect and the trust of the participants. And his decision, supported by the governments, to set a date, a final date, for an end to negotiations was a catalytic moment. It was a rush to the finish. I remember vividly the last two all-nighters. But he brought us across the—the governments, together with the parties who wrote the agreement. We were there to help facilitate that, and it was a happy ending.
HAASS: Was there any moment, David, en route to that happy ending where Senator Mitchell or yourself basically thought this was—this was not going to happen?
POZORSKI: Oh, we had grave doubts. We had grave doubts. January of—
HAASS: Whoops. We lost you there. OK, well, that’s good. That way we can keep this meeting positive.
POZORSKI: Sorry, I cut out. January of 2008 (sic; 1998) with a recurrence of violence. It looked pretty shaky, but the center held and we reached the finish line.
HAASS: Can I ask the same question to you two gentlemen, Bertie and then Jonathan. Were there moments when you thought this wasn’t going to happen? And what did you think was the alternative? If it weren’t to happen, what did you think would happen?
AHERN: Well, I think, Richard, when we look back on twenty-five years ago, the negotiations really started from September ’97, ran all the way through. So there were many ups and downs and, you know, there was still some level of violence. We had a lot of problems around the Christmas period. One of the key loyalist people were shot in the prison, which was a real downer. And then we had loyalist violence. We had to throw one of the parties out of the talks. That was a month gone. Then we had to throw Sinn Féin out because there was IRA violence. So we went through a lot of talk, and Senator Mitchell’s patience and perseverance helped greatly in that period, there’s no doubt about it.
So but even into the last month, there were a lot of issues that sort of pulled us down. You know, the opinion polls weren’t giving us much of a chance. I think the—my big fear, Richard, looking back now as we put our mind to it, that if we had failed it might not have been the end of the world not to get an agreement, to get a political agreement. Maybe we could have come back at that. But my big concern at the time was that it almost inevitably would have resumed an intensive degree of violence. I think that was my big concern. So you could say, well, you know, we failed. We didn’t get there. We got 90 percent. We didn’t get 100. But I think the violence would have resumed.
And the difficulty with that, you know, we went from ’68 to ’74 for the first effort to be made. We went from ’74 to ’85 for the second effort, ’85 to ’98. So I think it is—as we look back, if we were to look at the worrying precedent and pessimistic end, where would ’98 have led to if we didn’t bring it? It would have went on another decade. And that was the real concern that I had as we came to those last few weeks.
HAASS: Bertie, I’d like to ask you one follow-up question. Jonathan at the beginning said he thought the real accomplishment of the Good Friday Agreement was to take the violence out of the dispute for all intents—not 100 percent, but let’s just say 99 percent. What would you—I’ll ask each of this—what would you say were the accomplishments but also the shortcomings or, I don’t want to use the word “failures,” just what the agreement did and didn’t do? How do you think it ought to be rated as a historical accomplishment?
AHERN: I think, Richard, it ranks very highly because effectively we’ve ended violence. We had that terrible bombing in Omagh a few months after the agreement and after people ratified it in the north of Ireland and the south of Ireland. But we’ve had very little violence. I know one act of violence is one too many, but if you take all the things that happen in the modern world—and drug gangs, and drug barons. And, you know, the level of violence in Northern Ireland is very, very small.
I think Northern Ireland now is a peaceful place. And a huge amount of tourism, film industry strong, building up very fastly in Belfast artificial intelligence industry. The universities are zooming and, you know, huge numbers going to college, not all going to the rest of the UK. So there are huge, huge positives. And I think while the politicians, in my view, tend to be always a big behind the people but, you know, we have to live with that. But I think the nature of its economy.
And now the failures, I suppose, are that the institutions—the peace end has worked very well. The institutions, and you’re very familiar with these, Richard—but we have an assembly where people are elected, and they appoint an executive. And it’s been very much stop-go, mainly over, you know, issues. One had to do with Brexit. It followed directly from Brexit. The other one was to do with a cash for ash environmental grant scheme. So it has a bit to do with the issues that you would have expected in Northern Ireland. And, well, that has been frustrating—and I think Jonathan and I and others are still trying to see if we can find a conclusion to that issue.
HAASS: Jonathan, let me ask you the question with a slightly different spin. Which is, in its shortcomings, whether it’s become a liability, as you know, and you could explain better than I could, in order for the institutions have to be stood up. And they’ve only been up around 60-odd percent of the time since the Good Friday Agreement, I think. That you have to have essentially the unionists and the nationalists have a special position, what’s described as designation. And it essentially bifurcates the political process. It gives each side, essentially, a veto over things. Is that now counterproductive or obsolete? Have we reached a moment in the history of Northern Ireland where the Good Friday Agreement actually needs to be amended going forward?
POWELL: Well, actually Bertie has talked about this publicly recently, and I agree with what he’s been saying. Which is, yes, it is true that power sharing, which was a crucial aspect of the Good Friday Agreement, can be a problem when you’re trying to put the institutions back up and running. You’ve got the DUP by itself stopping the institution being put back up, when all the other parties want it to happen. And you’ve also had a growth of the middle in Northern Irish politics. So it’s just now sectarian. It’s not just now the unionist parties and the nationalist parties. There’s a big party in the middle, called the Alliance Party. And there’s a big chunk of the population, judging by the latest census, who don’t define themselves as nationalists or unionists.
So, long term, if you want to be able to change things, if you want to be able to throw the rascals out, as you want to in a democracy, you don’t want a forced coalition to go on forever and ever. Look at Bosnia, for example, where we imposed in the peace agreement exactly that, a forced coalition between different parties, forced power sharing. It’s led to terrible corruption and to a real stasis in politics. So long term you don’t want to have that.
But at the moment, in the middle of a political crisis, just when power sharing having been introduced to try and defend the Catholics, who were the minority, Catholics are no longer the minority. The Protestants now are less than the Catholics. Now it’s defending the Protestants. To remove it in the middle of that crisis, I think would be a mistake. But we do have to think long term of how that’s going to change. But for now, we need the system to—we need the institutions to get back up and running again. And that means we need to persuade the unionists to come back into power, not to change the rules on them at this last stage.
HAASS: Do you agree with that, Bertie?
AHERN: I do. I think there’s this treble C issue, cross community consent. And you cannot make a fundamental change to the balance of the Good Friday Agreement without that consent. It would be a lovely tot if we could have government opposition like we experience in so many other democracies. But you cannot say that we’re in a stable position when the institutions have been under stop-start. So until we get that kind of permanency of the stability of the institutions, we’re not going to be able to make that change. There’s no harm with debating that after the institutions are set up. My view is, to go near it before setting up the institutions would be a disaster.
HAASS: David, one thing that I dealt with about ten years ago, in a separate phase of negotiations, was the so-called legacy of the past. That there hadn’t been a full accounting, I guess that would be the word I would use, of what had happened and who was responsible, whether it was legally, morally, whatever measure one wants to use. Was that an issue in 1997 and ’8, this question of dealing with the unresolved problems associated—oops, you just disappeared again. You seem to be having a problem with your connection.
POZORSKI: Yes, I’m sorry. I may get cut off. But, yes, I think it was. But it was not a major issue, in my recollection.
HAASS: Was there anything that you all wanted to put into the negotiations that you thought—and, for example, Jonathan at the beginning said he thought part of the genius of the agreement was what it didn’t try to accomplish. Were there times you and Senator Mitchell were more ambitious, and thinking that we were letting an opportunity slip by?
POZORSKI: No, I don’t think so. I think we were following the lead of the governments and the parties working together on the agreement. I think one significant point from the report of the international body from January 22 of 1996—was mostly about decommissioning, of course—was the recommendation that decommissioning start during the talks rather than as a precondition for the talks, which was a big change once that was accepted by the British government.
HAASS: Just for those of you who are not full-time Northern Ireland aficionados, decommissioning refers to the relinquishing of arms, which was a central part of the process. And it was a question, again, of timing and, shall we say, sequencing, not to mention verification of all that.
Jonathan, let me raise to you the same question about dealing with the past. To what extent—I mean, you’re involved in so many disputes. You’ve got more horizontal or comparative experience really that just about anybody I know. To what extent do you believe that dealing with the legacy of the past is something that is either essential or desirable? Or do you actually think it brings out of the closet certain issues that can’t be managed and actually get in the way? What is your take on that in general, but also particularly for Northern Ireland?
POWELL: Well, I think it is really, really important, and it is absolutely crucial. If you think the Columbia peace accord, for example, with the FARC, that depended on having a resolution on transitional justice. So both the generals and the terrorists would have to face justice, but wouldn’t be going to jail for thirty years, because in which case they wouldn’t have signed up for a peace negotiation. So that found a balance, from that point of view. And most peace processes have a truth and reconciliation part to them. We did not put that into the Good Friday Agreement. We did not put that into the nine years of negotiations on the implementation, because we didn’t want to make it even more difficult than it had been.
So the way we dealt with it was just as we were leaving government we set up a commission to look at how this should be handled, headed by the Protestant archbishop, Archbishop Eames, and Denis Bradley, a former Catholic priest from Derry. They reported back two years later to say that neither side, neither republicans nor unionists, wanted to have a truth and reconciliation process, because they didn’t want to dig up all the bodies and have all of this politics again.
But the problem with that’s been is there’s no way to allow people to move on politically from the history. Northern Ireland was always sort of bogged down by its history. And since we haven’t had that process of truth and reconciliation, we haven’t been able to move on. The British government, in my view, has made a mistake by trying to move ahead by having an amnesty now for everybody. They’re led into that by wishing to find ways of dealing with the trials of former British soldiers, very elderly former British soldiers, seventies and eighties, who had maybe committed crimes in that period. They wanted to stop that, so they had an amnesty for everybody.
And that’s not going to satisfy the victims or the families or the victims, or, indeed, any of the parties in Northern Ireland. So I think that should be revisited and they should find a way that we do need to move on. We do need to have a process of truth and reconciliation. It isn’t right to try to leave it to the courts, because the courts can’t deal with these crimes thirty more years afterwards. So I think there needs to be something new. But what they’ve done has been a real mistake. And I think we need to find a new way of doing it.
HAASS: I have, shall we say, strong views on the topic, having labored in that vineyard rather intensively. Bertie, I’m curious whether you subscribe to that, that we ignore the past at our peril and it has to be dealt with as a precursor moving forward. Or do you actually think if it gets in the way of moving forward?
AHERN: Oh, I think it has to be dealt with. There’s been a few attempts at this, as Jonathan has said. One of the few times the parties in the north agreed on any one proposal was the Stormont House Agreement. And that was a way of moving on the legacy issue. Well, anyway, that’s a long story. It wasn’t taken up, and so that initiative fairly well died. And the present legacy legislation that’s before the Parliament in London, is definitely not the way to go. And it’s really building up quite a lot of animosity. And so I agree with Jonathan. You have to find some new way.
I remember back twenty years ago talking to the parties after I met De Klerk and Mandela. They were in Dublin for a meeting in Dublin castle. And they had told us how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked. And I tried it with the two sides at that stage. And to say that they ran out the window is an understatement. And neither of them wanted to listen to it. But I think maybe twenty years on, we might find a better initiative.
Now, there is an organization called WAVE, and it is an inclusive organization that has people who were—their family members were victims on all sides. And they have some sense about proposals. So I don’t believe that you can investigate every last case. I think there’s something like thirty thousand files. It’s no good saying you can deal with thirty thousand files. So you do need to find some way that’s not a legal way, because if you try to go through thirty thousand court cases and, you know, we’ll be here in two hundred years. So that’s not going to deal with it. So it needs some fresh thinking. But it is—it is an issue—it is an issue that needs to be dealt with sympathetically. Maybe not as completely as might be desirable, but certainly it needs to be dealt with.
HAASS: Yeah, no. We tried in 2013, at the request of the parties, and didn’t quite succeed. In part, because the British government actually was not totally supportive. We got Sinn Féin to sign on but we couldn’t get the unionists or the British government to sign on. It then happened in 2014 at Stormont, as you said, most of it, and then it never got implemented. So it is sitting there. And I tend to agree that the current proposal is, shall we say, less than optimal.
Can I ask one last question about the present and future? Subsequent to the Good Friday Agreement, roughly twenty years afterwards, we had Brexit. Which has changed the context, I’ll put it diplomatically. I was once a diplomat. What is your sense now about where we stand in the history of Northern Ireland? So we’re looking back twenty-five years. We are where we are. You got demographic changes. You’ve got Brexit. You have some people beginning to talk to the leadership of Sinn Féin about border polls in the not-too-distant future. What is your sense of where we are? Jonathan before said he thought—he didn’t know—I don’t want to put words in his mouth—but he basically thought that the idea of a returning to significant violence is not in the cards, thankfully. But I’m curious where you—is this a bicycle, we either move forward or we fall off? Or can this stay where it is for quite some time? Jonathan then Bertie.
POWELL: Well, Brexit was a really significant challenge and problem for what we’ve done in Northern Ireland. As John Major and Tony Blair pointed out in the 2016 referendum. And they pointed out that if you are going to leave the single market and the customs union of the EU, you’re going to have to have a border somewhere. Had that border been put on the island of Ireland, it would have destroyed all of the work we did to try to take identity out of politics in Northern Ireland and make it about ordinary things, like education, health, finances, and so on. Luckily, everyone agreed that shouldn’t happen.
Theresa May, to her credit, tried to avoid having that happen by setting up a Heath Robinson scheme of Britain staying inside the customs union. Didn’t work. Boris Johnson came in and, extremely irresponsibly, settled for a border in the Irish Sea, which is certainly better than a border of the Irish—the island of Ireland. But that then caused a problem for the unionists, because then they’re being separated from the rest of the United Kingdom. So that’s why they brought the institutions down.
The latest negotiations have solve a lot of that problem by Rishi Sunak, very sensibly, settling with the EU to remove the practical challenges of that border. The border will be, more or less, invisible. But it will be there. And now we need to persuade the DUP to come back into the institutions, or we’ll have this continuing political crisis. It is possible we’ll have this continuing political crisis for some time. And that will make issues like the united Ireland more salient because they’ll be no way of getting back to Stormont. It is slightly paradoxical because it was always the nationalist republicans who didn’t want Stormont. It was brought in by the British government and created by the unionists. And now it’s the unionists who are killing off Stormont, which is slightly weird, but anyway.
I think we are in a political crisis. We need to find a way out of it. It’s been caused by Brexit. Rishi Sunak and the current government have done their best to resolve that issue. We’re going to have to move a couple more steps forward.
HAASS: Bertie, I’d love to hear you on that. In particular also, what you see as the thinking in the Republic of Ireland, in the south, about essentially border polls and Irish unification. One almost always talks about it in the context of Northern Ireland. I’m curious how it looks to people in Dublin and the areas around Dublin.
AHERN: Yeah. I think Brexit has been very unhelpful, Richard, to put it at its very mildest, from 2016. It created major difficulties right up until now, right up until the Windsor Agreement in the last few weeks. And it created—we’ve had a series of measures to try to deal with it. We had the backstop. Then we had the protocol. We’ve had endless discussions between the European Union and the UK. Those discussions were on a stop-start. It was a bit like Stormont; they’d meet for a week and then stop for a year. And that hasn’t been helpful.
But the reality of it is that we need to try to get over this step. There was always going to have to be a border wherever the EU stopped. Pascal Lamy, who you knew, who was head of the WTO and the commissioner of trade in the EU, in the very first week said this was going to be a difficulty for us. And we have struggled to find a solution.
I think we’ve now fairly well dealt with the issue. I think the EU have been flexible. Rishi Sunak, the new British prime minister of the last few months, has put a lot of effort into this. And some people say we’ve got 97 percent of the way, but there still is a—there still is a problem. The DUP seem to see that there are still some outstanding issues that affect them. And really they don’t like any European law coming directly into Northern Ireland that doesn’t be codified through the Houses of Parliament in London. Now you can dance on the top of the needle about that, but what’s where we are. And we still have to try and resolve that issue.
I agree with Jonathan on that if we don’t get the institutions up—and to answer your question directly—that is creating far more debate about a border poll, a unification poll, that we ever would have had if Brexit never happened. And my own view on it, rather than give you the whole debate about what everybody thinks. But my own view, unless two things happen—you have to have sustainable institutions for a prolonged period. Now, prolonged I don’t mean a year or two. It has to be a prolonged period. That’s number one. And number two, the preparatory work has to be done before it’s put to the people.
We’ve now had a number of referendums of my lifetime. We had the Quebec one in Canada, you had Brexit, and you had a Scottish referendum, where preparatory work wasn’t done. And see the mess that this always creates. So until that kind of work is done, I think having a border poll is not only undesirable but it would be a waste of effort because I can tell you now what the result would be.
HAASS: Interesting. OK, lots more I could ask, but I will show uncharacteristic restraint. You’ve both taught me that. We’re having problems with David’s—I’m not sure if it’s his wi-fi or iPad or computer. But anyhow, we are where we are. So let’s—Kayla, let’s open it up to our members. And I’ll just ask a few follow-up questions along the way. But over to you.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Audrey Kurth Cronin.
Q: Hello. This is Audrey Kurth Cronin at Carnegie Mellon University.
And I just want to first express my admiration for what you all have accomplished, and also mention that I’m a big admirer of your book, Mr. Powell, Terrorists at the Table. I wrote a book also, called How Terrorism Ends.
To get to the point, you talked about the Omagh bombing in 1998, which is a really horrible event. Twenty-nine people killed, two hundred people injured. And a lot of the people killed were schoolchildren who were on a field trip. So I wanted to ask you is what role did the popular repulsion against that bombing play in the success of the agreement? And, secondly, much more broadly, what’s the best way for negotiators to deal with ongoing violence by splinter groups?
HAASS: Good question.
POWELL: So, shall I start?
AHERN: Yeah, go ahead.
POWELL: Firstly, I should repay the compliment. Your book is absolutely excellent, and I used it a lot in a book that I wrote. So thank you for that.
Omagh was a horrible, horrible crime. And lots of Spanish schoolchildren had come up from the Republic and were visiting and were killed and maimed too. It was the worst tragedy of the whole of the Troubles, the worst outrage. It was a very interesting thing because it was after the Good Friday Agreement. We’d had the referendum. Everything seemed to be going well. And then this happened. And historically in Northern Ireland, that could have been the thing that knocked peace right through the window and ended it. Because traditionally republicans had never condemned an act by another republican group. But Adams and McGuinness, with a little bit of persuasion, came out and condemned it, which was a first, and therefore helped to build confidence.
And also, unionists traditionally, when faced by something like Omagh, would have actually ended the process. Said, we don’t care what republicans did this, we’re just ending it. It shows they’re not serious. And again, David Trimble, to his credit—there were many flaws to David Trimble, but he was a brave man. And he did the right thing in the most difficult circumstances. And he came out—he said he was going to redouble his efforts to make peace, and he did that. And he also forced the dissidents into a ceasefire subsequently, the dissident Republicans. So the effect of Omagh, horrible as it was, was to actually reinforce the peace process and make it more likely to succeed.
In terms of the fractional groups, the dissident groups, I think my feeling is while I’m in favor of negotiating with armed groups, and talking to terrorists is the name of the book, but actually when you have very small fractional groups, like the dissident republicans, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to negotiate politically with them because they have no political support to speak of. You know, Sinn Féin were enjoying 20 to 30 percent of the Catholic vote at the height of the Troubles. So they had genuine political support and had to be negotiated with politically. That’s not true of these fractional groups. You’re looking at maybe a thousand supporters in total for these groups.
So I think you have to deal with them as a criminal issue. And they were dealt with very successfully until recently. The security service and the police in Northern Ireland managed to really undermine them—undermine their attacks very successfully. Unfortunately, they got through and very nearly killed a policeman recently. But they’ll be back on the case and trying to stop it. But I think it’s a policing matter.
AHERN: Yeah. I think the Omagh, the big fear was that it could go badly wrong on the political situation. And I think a number of things happened. David Trimble stood up and actually one of the first things he said—he went to the funerals both of Catholics and Protestants, because everybody was killed in that bomb, including the students from abroad. He said, you know, Northern Ireland was no longer a cold place for Catholics. I think that went down very well with the nationalist people. I think that Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams coming out issuing really strong condemnation.
And I saw that both Tony Blair and I came together very quickly. We visited places in Northern Ireland. But, most importantly, President Clinton and Hillary came over shortly afterwards. And they went around to communities. And that gave it a great source that the world saw what was happening and understood what was happening, and the suffering of the people right across the position. So many of these people were children or very young. And I think rather than people saying there’s no hope in this, it kind of redoubled that effort coming into that winter of 1998 or saying, listen, we want an end to this. The Good Friday Agreement has put an end to this, and we want an end to it.
And, thankfully, now in that twenty-five years since that 15 of August, 1998, we’ve had no—now, in fairness, the security forces have been very successful in thwarting some of the efforts. There still is—I don’t want to give the impression that there’s not still a small band of hardened militants who unfortunately would still do anything if they could get away with it. But by and large, it’s the security forces plus the will of the people that people don’t cover these things up or hide people anymore. And that’s what’s led to, I think, a very peaceful society over the last quarter of a century.
HAASS: David, I’m not sure if you’re on again. Were you there for the trip by the President and Mrs. Clinton in 1998, I think it was?
POZORSKI: Yes. I participated in the Vital Voices Conference that Hillary Clinton chaired in Belfast in July. So I was there.
HAASS: And how much was that trip brought about—was it preplanned or was it in part meant to shore things up after the agreement?
POZORSKI: It was preplanned, but it was a coincidence that it was scheduled for that time. It was perfect timing to help reassure the people of Northern Ireland of American interest in their well being.
HAASS: I want to come back to one thing that Bertie and Jonathan referred to. You know, you talked about David Trimble stepping up at an impressive moment. That Gerry Adams did as well. To what extent was this agreement only possible because we had, what you might call, the founders generation? You had Gerry Adams, you had Martin McGuinness, you had David Trimble, you still had Ian Paisley there. In a funny sort of way, these people had legitimacy with their respective constituencies in the streets that nobody else could have. And it took them to make this possible. And a subsequent generation might have had much more difficulty making this. How fair of a historical assessment is that?
AHERN: Well, I think it’s very fair, because, you know, at different times there were very powerful leaders. Most of them had been around for twenty years or maybe thirty years. You know, everyone knows John Hume, but Seamus Mallon was kind of his number two, and was the first secretary—or, the first minister in the institutions back in 1999 with David Trimble. And then we had very powerful people on the loyalist side. David Ervine, Gary McMichael. So we had, you know, really, really good leaders. And I think, you know, they were all able to work together. I think they all wanted—they’d all lived through years of the Troubles and wanted to see an end to it.
Maybe the difficult—and I don’t want this to be seen as a big criticism or naming anybody, Richard. But I think, you see, nowadays we’re dealing with a generation who haven’t lived through twenty-five years of violence. And they haven’t been dealing with, you know, the problems we were faced with in the last few weeks. And the question that faced Tony Blair and I, that if we didn’t get this agreement done, if we didn’t make progress, were we going to leave another ten years of violence? Now people might say, ah well, you know, all that we’re leaving is a bit more instability and a bit more political instability, so that’s not the end of the world.
Now, my own position is that I think it is the end of the world. I think these things can’t be left. I hate vacuums. Jonathan has been involved in far more conflicts than I have around the world, but I think wherever you have vacuums it can be filled by people who have ulterior, bad motives. And politics is the art of the possible and moving forward. And I just think leaving things there and hoping that they’ll be all right in the day is a very dangerous thing to do.
HAASS: Jonathan, you want to say something here?
POWELL: Well just one thing that I think I find striking is the way that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley were able to work together. Bertie and I were in the room when they were introduced as first minister and deputy first minister, and sat on that sofa between Bertie and Tony cracking jokes at each other. And these two guys had been coresponsible for starting this war in the first place. Ian Paisley, politically by trying to march on the Sinn Féin office in west Belfast to pull down the tricolor. Martin McGuinness, in a slightly more physical and murderous manner.
But here they were. They came together. And they made this thing work. It was quite extraordinary. They sat there together. Martin McGuinness handled Ian Paisley brilliantly. Ian Paisley put himself into the position as leader. And that generation could make the institutions work. And, as Bertie says, the next generation, who didn’t even play a role in this war, can’t seem to make it work. And that is frustrating and worrying.
HAASS: I agree. Kayla, let’s get some more questions.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Brendan O’Leary.
Q: Thank you very much. Thank you, everybody present, for your remarkable and sustained contributions to peace and progress in Ireland.
I have a question directly targeted at both Jonathan and at Bertie. Namely, Jonathan, you left out one of the key institutions in your necessarily brief summary, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Both the British and Irish governments decided to mothball that conference as a way of stabilizing devolution, but it meant, of course, that when the Brexit crisis materialized the institutions were not up and running—the most important institution, namely the one in which the two key guardians were present. Do you think that was an error? And do you think that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference can be made to work better?
HAASS: Jonathan, just explain in the beginning of your answer exactly what the rationale or purpose of the Intergovernmental Conference was.
POWELL: Well, to make sure that the two governments—so you had the various institutions that were set up in Northern Ireland. You had the Council of the Isles that had all of the islands. Then you needed one between the two governments to make sure all of this worked. That was the point.
And I think it’s right, it was a real problem that didn’t exist when we got into the mess that Brexit created. I think it was actually a bigger problem than just not the existence of the Council; it was that the British government under Boris Johnson was determined to undermine the good relations that had been built between the British and Irish government at, you know, quite considerable cost, and particularly during the time when Bertie was taoiseach and Tony Blair was prime minister. They threw it all out of the window.
I’m glad to say that it has been fairly short lived. We’ve been able to rebuild pretty quickly when that particular succubus was taken out of our politics. But the—I think it was actually not just the institution of the IGC; it was also the actual tradition of working together that had been so important and was axed by Boris Johnson. But I don’t know if Bertie would agree with that.
AHERN: Yeah. I think, I mean, Brendan, you know that Rishi Sunak went to Blackpool to a meeting of the Council just before Christmastime, and that was the first time a British prime minster had gone since Gordon Brown. So a long void. And you know, whether it was right or wrong, the view was that Prime Minister Johnson didn’t see it as worth his while to go to these meetings.
Now, I think it’s very important. I attended many of these meetings with Tony and afterwards with Gordon Brown a few, and you know, it is—it is a place where issues can be resolved and people can talk about them in an open way. And more important since Brexit because for forty-five years we had Irish and British officials meeting every week in Europe. They were meeting in working groups, task forces. They were on—you know, they were having a drink at night in the bars and the restaurants, and there was a real, you know, camaraderie between these officials. I know for a fact that—and probably more from our side we got a lot of help because, you know, we were able to check with the same common-law system. So there was—there was a great kind of relationship.
That all ended with Brexit. Our officials never meet now. There is...no think tanks. There is...no groups. And the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the east-west institutions that Jonathan explained at the start, you know, they’re the vehicle of carrying this forward, and I think this is crucial.
And last year—and it’s worth saying this because, you know, before Rishi Sunak came in—came into office a few months back, we were heading to a position where the relationship between the Irish and the British government on their own say so—not people like me saying it, but on their own saying so—was heading into crisis. And thankfully, we’ve reversed that position very quickly.
HAASS: OK. Kayla, let’s get another question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Richard Portes.
Q: Thank you. Richard Portes of London Business School. I’m pleased to say that there is considerable, still, interaction between Irish and British economists, so we have at least that.
But let’s take it—take the present. And both Bertie and Jonathan have said that you can’t think about revising the framework, the agreement, until things are normalized, you have Stormont operating again, et cetera. But the DUP say they won’t play until the protocol issues are fully resolved to their satisfaction. Windsor is not acceptable, not satisfactory. But is that a smokescreen? That is to say, are they using that as an excuse in the sense that—what is the incentive? What incentive can you make for them to go back to Stormont under a Sinn Féin first minister? That must be a very difficult—that would be a very difficult pill to swallow, no?
HAASS: Anybody want to take that?
AHERN: I’ll take it. I think, Richard, I can never walk too far in the streets of Dublin, where I’m from, without people making that point to me. They say, listen, you’re all wasting your time. The real problem is that the DUP do not want to be seen as deputy first minister under Sinn Féin.
Now, my answer always is that when we designed this system, that there are joint posts and, you know, they’re equal power and equal status. So while, you know, it might have been we had this side agreement in 2006 in St. Andrews—which was the only review we’ve had of the agreement in twenty-five years—where there was a distinction made between first minister [and] deputy first minister, but they’re actually the one position. And I don’t really think that’s the problem, but it is raised all the time, Richard. As the other point is raised that they say, well, Jeffrey Donaldson, who’s head of the DUP, does he really ever want to come back to Stormont or does he want to be still part of the—of the—(inaudible). I can’t answer that question. Only he can do that.
But what I can answer is that it seems to me that the tests that the DUP asked all of us to deal with have fundamentally and comprehensively—maybe not 100 percent—been dealt with. And it seems to me that the Windsor agreement and all the progress that’s been made is enough to be able to move on. And if it’s not enough, Richard, I would like to see, you know, in really precise terms what it is that the DUP wants the British government and Europe still to deal with, and that’s not at all clear.
HAASS: Jonathan, I wanted to ask you a question because I wanted to circle back to something you mentioned before. Then I’ve got one for David, if he’s with us. Which is, you thought that the great accomplishment of the agreement was to take violence out of Northern Ireland. Just imagine X years hence there was a move towards a border poll. Are you sure—what gives you the confidence that you would not, for example, have loyalist violence at that point in order to totally change the context and to basically undermine desire for unification? Why are you so sure that wouldn’t happen?
POWELL: Well, you can’t be totally sure and it is worth remembering the history—that it was actually not the IRA that started all this; it was the UVF in 1916 with the—exactly the fear of being marooned in a united Ireland—united Catholic Ireland. So the history of violence goes back all the way to that, so, yes, you’re right to raise that as an issue.
And I—the violence we are seeing at the moment in terms of street demonstration and what Bertie calls the white knights, when we get the kids out in the street—and we’ll probably be getting it again in a few months’ time—rioting, I think behind that is the fear of unification. And what worries me a bit is that we need to demystify reunification. People are afraid of talking about it for stirring the unionists up, but that makes it more scary. And unification would not be a simple thing. You know, what would you do about eight hundred thousand Protestants who don’t want to be united into a Catholic Ireland? How would their rights be protected? Would Stormont continue? Would there be a regional parliament in the North? These kind of questions need to be talked about.
And I think we’d be better off talking about them than trying not to talk about them. I do understand why the Irish government and British government, and of course the unionists, are reluctant to. But I think if you de-dramatize this, this is all going to take quite a long time It’s not—what we don’t want is a fifty-eight—I’m sorry, a fifty-two/forty-eight outcome of a referendum and then press ahead on a united Ireland. That would be a disaster for everyone. So we do need to think about that.
And you could have violence if you had that kind of situation, where we forced through a forty-eight/fifty-two solution for a united Ireland against the wishes of the Protestants. You could well have violence. I don’t think you’d be back to a civil war, but there would be a really big problem that we don’t want to have.
HAASS: Yeah, I just want to second something you said because I agree with it. Having experienced the German history recently and watched the debate in Korea, particularly in the Republic of Korea—in the South—I think the idea of doing serious analysis of unification is a smart idea to demystify it, to reassure people, to basically raise the—you don’t want to raise the questions at the time. You want to have that sorted out. You want to build a degree of comfort and consensus for it. Or just the opposite, you want to demonstrate that the problems might be too large. But either way, you don’t want there to be a lot of surprises at the—at the end of the process. You want that all to be dealt with seriously beforehand. I think you make a good point.
David, I was about to ask you a question but you disappeared on me again. I’m not quite sure what’s going on.
Kayla, let’s get another question in.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Peter Galbraith.
Q: Thank you. And, of course, congratulations on the success of this twenty-five years.
I have a question that’s perhaps mostly directed to Jonathan Powell, which is twofold. First, I know you’ve written a book on it, but really focusing on the lessons of Good Friday and this process, what do you think are the most important one or two in terms of dealing with nonstate actors or groups that were designated as terrorist groups? And second, you’ve ruled out negotiating with splinter groups, but are there groups or regimes—Assad, for example—that are terrible that you shouldn’t negotiate with them?
POWELL: Well, thank you, Peter. My answer would be that I wouldn’t put anyone beyond the pale of negotiation because of their ideological position or not necessarily even because of the terrible things that they’ve done. I mean, take, for example, if we go to a completely different context, Ukraine. Would you refuse to negotiate with Putin because of the crimes that he’s committed, or would you at some stage actually negotiate with Putin if that was the only way to stop the war and stop more suffering? So I don’t think you can set barriers like that.
The barrier that I think is the important one is whether a group has political support or not. So look at other examples. You look at Haiti, for example, or even Colombia. In Colombia, the new government is thinking about negotiating with criminal gangs or drug gangs. In Haiti, there’s a suggestion to negotiate with the gangs that have taken over Port-au-Prince. The trouble with negotiating with gangs that have no political demands, no political existence, no political support is, what are you actually going to negotiate? You can negotiate a shorter term in prison in order to stop violence, but there isn’t a negotiation of the sort we had in Good Friday or the negotiations that happened elsewhere—that Bertie was involved in, for example, in Papua New Guinea. So in those circumstances there is something political to negotiate. In these criminal gangs like the dissident IRA still left in the North, I think that is—that is just a different sort of negotiation. It’s not a political negotiation.
But I wouldn’t rule someone out who has genuine political support just because we regard them as beyond the pale or because we call them terrorists because that makes it very difficult to settle their problems. If we’d said we’re never going to negotiate with Sinn Féin because of the IRA and the terrible things the IRA had done, we’d have never managed to get to peace in Northern Ireland.
HAASS: David, since you’re back with us, I had a question about George Mitchell I’ve long wanted to ask him but haven’t. When you read his memoirs, he had more patience than any human being I’ve ever encountered in my life. And I’m curious, was this just simply his manner or was this studied? Was this sort of a major act of discipline to sit still and quietly and let the long stories wash over him?
POZORSKI: This was his manner in the Senate and in all the negotiations he was involved in. I think that’s why he was such a—in demand as a negotiator over the years.
HAASS: OK. Good. Thank you for clarifying that because I—whatever contributions I’ve made, I don’t think then I would have been up to that task. (Laughter.) I think my fuse would have gone out long before his ever did.
Bertie, I’m going to ask—as the taoiseach, I’m going to give you the last word. What is it you think that Americans twenty-five years later ought to—ought to understand about what was—what was accomplished, where we are? What should we take away from all this?
AHERN: Well, I think the American involvement was substantial. I think American presidents of the time and since have been very helpful. We’re looking forward to President Biden coming here shortly if reports are correct. President Clinton and Hillary will be coming to meet Jonathan and I and the other leaders of twenty-five years ago in a few weeks’ time in Belfast. And I think George Mitchell’s involvement as negotiator. So America were central to a lot of this.
I always felt that you needed outside interests. You needed something to bridge that gap. Your own involvement, Richard, and you spent a lot of your valuable and good time. So I think that was hugely important.
And I hope people around the world—I never tried to say it’s a total success, but I do people—think people will see that what was achieved in Good Friday with the help of everybody—what happened between Tony Blair’s government and my government—you know, proved to be a peace process that attaches huge interest. I mean, there’s not a—there’s not a month goes by that we don’t have people coming to see what happened or we haven’t got students coming to our universities to see what happened, and I think that’s been a very positive thing. And it’s not the perfect, perfect agreement, but it certainly was a very important agreement.
HAASS: A good way to end it. Let me thank you three gentlemen—Bertie, Jonathan, and David—for twice—I want to thank you twice.
One, most important, for your service here, for your participation. I agree it’s an important agreement that has stood the test of time and it is something of a model about what can be accomplished through diplomacy.
And I want to thank you for giving us your time today, for sharing both your memories and your insights with us.
I also want to thank Council members for joining us. And I hope everyone, in the spirit of a Good Friday agreement, has a good Monday. So thank you all and be well.
POZORSKI: Thank you.
POWELL: Thank you.